Variations on the word ‘controversial’ are most often used by critics and commentators to describe Melvin Burgess’s fiction.‘[U]ncompromising’, claims The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature;1 ‘edgy, honest, provocative’ is how The Continuum Encyclopedia of Young Adult Literature puts it.2 Burgess himself is widely known as the ‘godfather’ of young adult fiction and ‘a reluctant, if consistent, controversialist’.3 This high-profile reputation stems from the publication of what was in fact his eighth novel for young people, Junk (1996), a multiple first-person narrative which details the adventures of two teenagers encountering street life and drugs culture in 1980s Bristol. The popular British newspaper The Daily Mail reported on Junk’s success in winning the 1996 Carnegie Medal in sensationalist style: ‘Heroin addiction, brutality and prostitution […] Teachers outraged by librarians’ choice.’4 However, Burgess himself claims that much of the controversy surrounding the novel was a ‘paper tiger’.5 Indeed, the scandalized tone of The Daily Mail was relatively isolated, and many more educationalists, librarians and reviewers have preferred to take a liberal stance towards Junk and Burgess’s other contentious titles. The Times’ response to his Carnegie success (‘It’s not books that corrupt’6) was perhaps more representative of the attitudes of such adult gatekeepers towards what young people might be exposed to and digest.
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